Nelson will be at home for each game Yankees reliever grew up in Catonsville as O's fan

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- No matter where New York Yankees right-hander Jeff Nelson goes during the American League Championship Series, he'll be playing before a home crowd.

Nelson, who came up big in last week's Division Series against the Texas Rangers, will be coming home to Baltimore for the weekend portion of the ALCS. And he'll return as one of the reasons the Orioles figure to have their hands full in the best-of-seven playoff series.

"It's going to be special going there after being an Orioles fan all my life," said Nelson, a 1984 Catonsville High graduate who played baseball at Catonsville Community College. "Even when I got to the big leagues with Seattle, I still rooted for the O's."

The Yankees dominated the Orioles in head-to-head competition during the regular season, and Nelson pitched very well against them, going 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA in eight appearances. He never expected to get another chance.

"It's funny how we beat out the Orioles to get here, and now we're playing them again," Nelson said. "My wife and all my family, they're all asking, 'Who do we root for?' It's all in fun. It's exciting to have that extra aspect of it."

Super setup man Mariano Rivera and American League save leader John Wetteland get most of the headlines, but Nelson came up big during the second half of the regular season and already has contributed heavily to two postseason victories.

He helped hold things together in extra innings in Game 2 of the Division Series, buying time in the 12th for the Yankees to score a sudden-death victory that turned the series around. If he or any of the six relievers who pitched in that game had blinked, the club would have headed for Texas down two games.

The Yankees won two times in Arlington, but who knows what would have happened if the Rangers had gone home needing just one victory, especially with the front end of the Yankees' rotation already behind them?

Nelson apparently throws pretty well in clutch situations, with a strong effort against the Yankees a year ago in the Division Series when he was a setup man for the Mariners.

That's one of the major reasons that the Yankees wanted him included in the December deal that brought first baseman Tino Martinez to New York along with pitcher Jim Mecir for pitcher Sterling Hitchcock and third baseman Russ Davis.

"When we acquired him, I'm sure that had a lot to do with it," said Joe Torre, who took over as Yankees manager a month before the trade, "but I also heard from a lot of other managers -- like [Milwaukee's] Phil Garner -- who said, 'You got a good one.' "

It took a while for Nelson to settle in. He struggled through the first two months of the season and entered June with a hefty 5.72 ERA, but he improved steadily in June and July. He struggled again in August (7.50 ERA), but had his best month of the year (1.46) when the Yankees were under siege from the Orioles in September.

"He picked the right time to start feeling comfortable," Torre said. "I think when a player gets traded, he has a tendency to try too hard, but he is really pitching well."

So well that Rangers manager Johnny Oates considered him one of the reasons why opposing managers have to adapt their offensive strategy to a six-inning game to have a chance to win.

Nelson, 29, said he has some mixed emotions about facing the Orioles, but there is no questioning his intentions.

"I watched Eddie [Murray] when I was little, and when I went as a kid, I always remember hearing Rex Barney doing the P. A., so it is going to be special," Nelson said. "It will be even better when we beat them."

Pub Date: 10/09/96

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